Messin’ With Texas: Religious Right Faction Faces Blowback Over Social Studies Standards

The Texas textbook disaster should be a lesson to all of us.

The right-wing fundamentalist bloc on the Texas State Board of Education is bound and determined to rewrite American history. As reported here recently, member Don McLeroy has proposed amending Social Studies standards to cast doubt on the legitimacy of separation of church and state.

Earlier this week, the board accepted public comments about its proposals. They got an earful. Among the speakers was Brian Spears, representing AU’s Austin Chapter. Although Brian had just three minutes to speak, he was able to lay out the case against the board’s actions, firmly (but respectfully) chastising members for undermining church-state separation.

Two other Texas AU activists – Dimi Everette and Sarah Weis – were scheduled to speak but never got the chance due to the press of the crowd.

AU has been critical of this debacle for months. Thankfully, Spears was not the only speaker to criticize the board. In fact, it appears that McLeroy and his band of aspiring theocrats may have run into something they didn’t expect: a growing tide of opposition from Texas residents.

Our friends at the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) rallied Texans opposed to the changes May 19. (See a video clip here.) And now TFN has released a new poll that shows most state residents – 72 percent – believe teachers and academic scholars should set state standards. Only 19 percent backed having the board do this.

Furthermore, the poll shows that Texans support the separation of church and state. Sixty-eight percent of self-identified “likely voters” agree that church-state separation is a core principle, and 51 percent strongly agree with that statement. Only 26 percent disagree.

The findings should give the board pause. After all, when it came time to revise the social studies standards, the board’s fundamentalist faction enlisted as “experts” two notorious Christian nation propagandists – David Barton and Peter Marshall.

Barton runs a group called WallBuilders and makes his living peddling a cut-and-paste revisionist view of American history insisting that our country was founded to be an officially Christian nation. Although he invokes the founders, Barton really takes his cue from another historical period: the harsh Puritan theocracy. He calls church-state separation a “myth.”

Marshall is a Massachusetts fundamentalist minister who parrots Barton’s views. Americans United knew there would be trouble when the board’s right-wing bloc enlisted those two Torquemada wanabees instead of any of the credentialed historians populating Texas’ many fine universities.

Barton and Marshall claim to speak for the majority, and now it looks like they’re out of step with what Texans believe and what they want to see taught in the public schools.

(Despite Barton’s daft views, he has many friends around the country – including some in high places. Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey took the floor of the House of Representatives to praise Barton. The Florida Republican referred to Barton as a “historian,” which he is not. His degree – from Oral Roberts University – is in Christian education.)

Meanwhile, top U.S. education officials past and present are speaking out. Current Education Secretary Arne Duncan has opined that history standards in Texas should be crafted by historians, not politicians. (Imagine that!)

Rod Paige, education secretary under President George W. Bush, is also no fan of the proposed curriculum. Paige urged the board to delay the changes.

“We have allowed ideology to drive and define the standards of our Texas curriculum and it has swung from liberal to conservative depending on the members of state board,” Paige said. “What students are taught should not be the handmaiden of political ideology.”

A California legislator is so alarmed he has introduced legislation to ensure that Texas textbooks stay out of the Golden State. A bill proposed by Sen. Leland Yee would require the California Board of Education to be on the lookout for any of the Texas changes as it reviews textbooks.

“While some Texas politicians may want to set their educational standards back 50 years, California should not be subject to their backward curriculum changes,” Yee said. “The alterations and fallacies made by these extremist conservatives are offensive to our communities and inaccurate of our nation’s diverse history.”

The Texas textbook disaster should be a lesson to all of us. Most states have some type of state school board. Sometimes the members of these bodies are elected, or they may be appointed by the governor. Their powers and duties and vary wildly.

What’s the situation in your state? Who sits on the state education board? What are the members’ powers?

Don’t know? Maybe you should find out.